It seems like every trip I make to Thailand with a group of friends, one of them turns out to be exceptionally cheap. I don’t mean somewhat frugal or cost-conscious. I mean down right cheap. Miserly. A skinflint. But that can be quite entertaining in its own right. It’s hard to do cheap well. And an American trying to be cheap is no match for a Thai trying to pry open a touri’s wallet – you don’t stand a chance.
But Karen’s passion for squeezing the last nickel out of every dollar helped make a memorable trip become an even more memorable one; she insured that we got a great deal – totally unbargained for – that at the time seemed to be much ado about nothing. That her money savings antics gave the rest of us something to laugh at was an added bonus.
I knew Karen before the trip. She was not a close friend, but more friend than acquaintance. Her love affair with money had not been something I’d noticed before. She was a CPA, her partner an attorney. Just past 30, Karen was a tall blonde athletic in build and friendly in nature. Hearing that several of us were going to Thailand, she invited herself along and proved to be a good travelling companion. At least during the first part of the trip.
Karen had travelled extensively in her pre-college days, backpacking her way through Europe. She had great tales to tell of her previous travels including one about three days spent confined in a snow covered no-name town just inside of the Russian border, the local authorities deciding an American travelling alone was the perfect victim to hold until sufficient money had been paid. She saw it as a unexpected three day visit to Russia, and provided the locals a lesson in how difficult it is to force a bribe of any size out of someone who values her pocketbook more than her life.
Her cheapness didn’t really shine through during the first few days of our holiday together. My friend Ann had booked our hotels in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, both were cheap and downmarket enough to fit Karen’s taste. Though she took to bartering with a bit more passion than the rest of us, it wasn’t like she refused to spend money. Just that she always had to get the best possible deal. Regardless of the cost.
When we returned to Bangkok we went to look at a $25 a night hotel, and ad for which I had pointed out to Ann in Thai Air’s on-board magazine. I’d meant it as a joke. Ann, who could be quite frugal in her own right, was ecstatic. Of course it was a major dump, so we took a pass. And found instead a nice hotel nearby for a bit over $50 a night that became our hotel of choice for the next few years. During our inspection of the other hotels on the soi, Karen discovered one with $35 rooms and decided it was a better choice, booking herself a room that was small, cramped, and done in red. Red walls, decades old red carpeting, a red ceiling, and a red bedspread that was dark enough to hide the numerous stains it had gathered over its lifetime. Whether it was the result of spending too much time in a red room, or just that her natural inclinations finally took wing, from that point on Karen became a money-saving monster.
Both hotels, just across the soi from each other, had tour desks. The tour company operating out of Karen’s hotel, serving a more downmarket crowd, offered much cheaper prices for the same tour itineraries as the tour desk at our hotel. And they were willing to barter. So we let Karen work her magic, arranging a car and driver for a day trip to the Damnoen Saduak floating market. Cheapskates are not my favorite type of travelling companion, but I have no qualms about taking advantage of their skills. The tour company would not lower their price by much, but did allow Karen to score us a few extra hours of travel. Using up the hours she’d fought so hard for meant an early departure so after loading up with caffeine we were off to the floating market at 6:00 am the next morning.
Every newbie touri to Thailand wants to go to the floating market. All it takes is seeing one picture of the vendors in their small wood boats poling their way along the canals and you’re hooked. The actual experience for most, unfortunately, does not live up to the hype. Most people take one of the numerous large tour buses to the market and share the experience with a few thousand of their fellow touri. They don’t know any better. And neither did we. But thanks to Karen’s thriftiness, we arrived to find a sleepy little Thai version of Venice just starting to come awake.
The more you haggle for prices in Thailand, the better you get. Experience is a great teacher. So you also learn a few dos and don’ts. One of the most effective ploys is if the seller is not coming down to the price you’ve decided on, walk away. It has the same effect on a Thai as seeing a twenty dollar bill blowing down the street does in the U.S. They take off running, hands stretched out ready to grab the cash. You may think you are a touri, street market vendors see you as baht. And they’ll never let you get away.
Conversely, the worst bargaining technique to use is to make use of whatever it is that you are bargaining for before agreeing to a price. Pop the cap off a bottle of water and then ask how much and you’ll get screwed. Wait until you get to your destination before asking how much the ride costs and you are at your driver’s mercy. Except he will not have any. Having five of your fellow travellers jump into a small boat while you are still on shore haggling over twenty baht . . . Karen was not a happy camper with her travel mates. And she got the worst seat in the boat as a reward.
But the old lady who began polling us through the small waterways of Damnoen Saduak was pleased with the bargain she’d struck and rewarded us with a lengthy tour of the back canals of the town, even stopping at her home to offer us refreshments. It was a lazy morning, a languid ride, that offered a stupefying view of shallow banks overgrown with scraggly weeds occasionally broken with the monotony of some villager’s small hut. Six cameras clicked away constantly. We’d found the ‘real Thailand.’ We’d stumbled into the hidden part of the Kingdom that touri never get to see. At least we did until the first long-tail boat filled with touri to swamping capacity with its diesel racing car engine belching fumes and its ear-shattering engine howling echoes of pain came tearing down the canal. The tour buses had arrived.
When we got back to the dock the sleepy little town had transformed into a bustling metropolis filled with fat, sunburned visitors crammed together on rickety wood walkways precariously perched high above the waterway. Even then, vendors selling all of the same crap you could find back in Bangkok outnumbered touri two to one. Using long bamboo poles to transfer merchandise in exchange for baht, they stood in their tiny boats striking quick deals over tacky souvenirs with the hordes clamoring for a purchase – both monetarily and literally – far above the banks. And another haggling truism became evident. When your tour bus is leaving in five minutes the vendor you are bartering with knows which of you is constrained by time. Desperation in all of its forms is always costly.
Our plan when we’d arrived that morning was to take a quick boat tour and then afterwards wander along the banks of the river sampling the numerous delicacies offered by old women who were cooking the food on small braziers mounted in their tiny boats. It was a postcard picture perfect ideal that appealed to all of the senses. But by the time we arrived back in town, the old women were gone, the smoke of their cooking fires replaced by the diesel fumes of the long-tail boats. The tranquil setting had turned into tourism on steroids. Plan #2 was to get the hell out of Dodge.
Mother Nature it seems has a firm belief in karma. People who are tight with a buck always end up paying one way or another. It’s the only answer I’ve been able to come up with for the odd phenomenon that I’ve seen hold true over and over again. Those who find it difficult to let loose of a penny secrete a scent that mosquitoes find hard to pass. The sluggish water we’d been touring through was an ideal breeding ground for the little creatures and while they left five of us alone, they’d turned Karen into a travelling blood bank, extracting their pint of blood from her quite freely. The itching in her palms had expanded to itching all over and she needed relief. A believer in old wives tales and home remedies, or just out of desperation, the answer in Karen’s book was Tiger Balm, and for some odd reason the vendors of Damnoen Saduak considered little jars of Tiger Balm a great souvenir to sell to touri.
And so the hunt began.
From shop to stall to strolling vendor to floating vendor, Karen began hitting up everyone in town who counted Tiger Balm among their wares for the best price she could negotiate. Hers was a systematic process, the initial twenty vendors she haggled with was not about making a purchase but rather finding out just how low she could get each to go. Deftly pushing touri in search of the perfect postcard, the best straw hat, the tackiest souvenir with an elephant glued to it out of her way, she trounced vendor after vendor, her starting price lower and lower as she made her way through the market.
Finally satisfied with her market research and ready to make a purchase for a pittance, Karen spied an old Thai lady in a disintegrating cotton smock standing in the middle of a bridge over the canal, a small shallow basket her entire storefront, a half-dozen jars of Tiger balm – slightly out numbering the amount of teeth in her mouth – her sole product. Karen moved in for the kill.
Their transaction was not a pretty sight. Both went at it with a fury that would put a pair of heavyweight boxers to shame. Using threats coupled with tales of woe and poverty highlighted with pleas of mercy, both speaking in a language unknown to the other, the two begrudgingly gave up a baht at a time, slowly moving to a price somewhere in the middle of where they’d begun. The five of us were embarrassed over Karen’s thriftiness. The locals watched in awe, all with anticipatory glee evident in their smiles. A deal was finally struck. Twenty-two baht the agreed to price. Both gave the other a congratulatory nod, winner or loser (and which was which was debatable in their respective minds) the battle had been hard fought resulting in mutual respect for each other’s skill and efforts.
Karen carefully counted out the exact change and handed her part of the transaction over. The old lady palmed the coins, then reached down, grabbed the hem of her smock, and pulled it up over her head exposing her thin naked body and aged almost hairless cunt while crackling with glee. Karen was dumbstruck. Ann peed herself in laughter. The crowd, who knew what the punch line was, laughed uproariously. And the old lady dropped her dress, turned smartly on her heels and stomped off looking for her next victim.
It was undoubtedly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in Thailand. Being new to Thailand at the time and having no Thai I’ve never figured out if there was a setup spoken during the bartering or if the old lady was just bat shit crazy from the get-go. It wasn’t a one-off, the reaction from the locals proved otherwise. Perhaps it was a trade of scratch for snatch. I don’t know what the old lady’s story was, or why jars of Tiger Balm were necessary to her act. But twenty years later I still giggle whenever I see a jar.
We headed back to Bangkok with Karen itching and scratching the whole way. She wasn’t brave enough to attempt haggling for another jar until we were back safely in civilization. The final bitch slap awarded for her parsimoniousness was the jar she bought at the Family Mart on the corner by our hotel that was marked with a fifteen baht price tag. That and that she will always be known among my circle of friends as Tiger Balm Karen.
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